King Everard, Queen Idalia, and Queen Damiana were all in the courtyard of Castle Frost, waiting for the arrival of Prince Florian and his mother. It was a pretty day in the Borderlands; the skies were blue for once and there were no chilly autumn winds.
The three monarchs stood in tense silences, tiny smiles plastered onto their faces and held in place by sheer anxiety. When the royal carriage finally pulled up, all three immediately relaxed, letting their shoulders fall as they simultaneously exhaled.
Lord Benedict exited first, his hair bright red in the sun. He was followed by Florian. Both men helped Lavinia from the carriage.
"She does not look well," Damiana remarked, and as usual, she spoke with the tiniest hint of amusement. "Is the journey from your palace really that taxing?"
"No, it's not," Everard bit out, smoothly masking his confusion.
"She looks feverish," Idalia said. She turned her chamberlain. "Lord Ambrose, escort Queen Lavinia to her chambers, and summon my physician to see her."
"Majesty," the old man bowed, before leaving.
"Shall we postpone, Everard?" Damiana drawled. "I was hoping to see our children wed by tonight so I could head home tomorrow, but if we need to wait--"
"No," the king shook his head, jaw tightening. "We will proceed as planned." He stepped forward, smiling as embraced his son. "You look well."
"Thank you, Father," Florian blushed. He always inexplicably shy around his father, even though Everard had never been to him cruel in any way. He quickly realized he'd never actually enjoyed his father's attentions before. Everard usually saved his attention for Gregoria or matters of state.
"Your Majesties," Everard proudly turned back to Idalia and Damiana. "May I introduce my son, the Crown Prince Florian of the Southern Kingdom."
The prince bowed. Idalia smiled back, charmed by his slender, boyish looks. "It's a pleasure to meet you, Florian. You are most welcome at Castle Frost."
Florian turned to face his future mother-in-law and tried not to flinch. "You're pretty," Damiana mused. "I suppose my daughter will like that. She's waiting inside, with the Duchess of Easterland."
"Honora?!?" Lavinia bellowed, struggling to rise from bed. Upon reaching her assigned rooms, Benedict hadn't bothered with a chair, and instead promptly helped her into bed. She lay sweating heavily now, so much it was soaking through her thick velvet gown. "Is here???"
"Your Majesty," the royal physician patiently advised. He was an old man with white hair and light brown skin that wrinkled around his eyes. "I need you to calm down. Your pulse is racing."
"Fuck calm!" the queen barked. She turned an accusing gaze to her cousin. "Did you know about this?"
"Of course not," Benedict assured her. "But I think we should listen to the doctor, Majesty. You can always discipline the Duchess later."
"I can practically smell Gregoria's hand behind this," Lavinia snarled, eyes wild. "She sent that Alban cunt here to undermine me!"
"Majesty," Benedict cautioned strictly, his voice louder than usual. "When we return home, you can hang the woman from your castle walls if you please. Until then--"
"The damage is done," Lavinia rasped, finally laying back down as her illness claimed her strength. "I should've known Everard's miserable bitch of a daughter would have the last laugh. I knew she wouldn't stand idly by while Florian became king."
"Doctor?" Benedict inquired, when it became clear Lavinia was struggling just to breathe.
The physician flashed him a concerned look. "I don't think she should attend the wedding tonight, my lord."
Palace of the Southern Kingdom
"How long do I have?"
Savia shooed away her attendant and came to sit by Princess Gregoria. "I'm sorry, Your Highness. I've never seen this illness before."
"Oh, please," Gregoria rolled her eyes, laying back against her pillow. Winifred, her handmaiden, had drawn the blinds, and now only the hearth provided light in the dark chamber. "An illness that conveniently strikes out of nowhere after my brother leaves to get married? I always knew Lavinia would try something like this."
"Highness, you should rest."
"What for?" the princess laughed, then coughed. It hurt just to breathe. "I'm about to have all the rest I'll ever need." She painfully turned her head towards the elderly Ursa. "You'll look after my brother, won't you?"
"Always, Highness," came the somber reply.
"Not just because of his mother," Gregoria warned. "No daughter of Damiana Guardia could ever simply be a consort. Florian will have to be strong."
"And I will make him strong," Savia vowed.
There was a slight pause before the princess commanded, "Send for the mermaid. Then leave us."
To her surprise, the Ursa didn't argue. In fact, Aquiel was brought to her in record time. The beautiful dark-skinned mermaid glanced about herself, frantic and confused.
But when those dark violet eyes fell upon the ailing princess in her bed, she immediately understood.
"Your Highness," Aquiel whispered, alarmed. Gregoria gestured for her to come forward and sit on the edge of the bed. "You're ill."
"So they tell me," Gregoria snickered softly. "I just wanted to see you one last time." In all their conversations, the princess was usually cheerful, chattering away about her family history and boasting about their achievements, but she'd never looked at Aquiel the way she was now, her eyes filled with unbridled warmth and affection.
Aquiel was uncomfortable. She worked to keep from fidgeting as her mind raced with questions. "No one here can heal you? Did they even try?"
Gregoria flashed her rueful smile. "They don't know what this is." She paused, adjusting herself in bed and reaching out her sweaty left hand. "But perhaps you do."
Aquiel took the princess's hand and examined her rest. It appeared Gregoria's veins were turning black.
"I don't know this illness," the mermaid helplessly confessed, her eyes distraught. "It doesn't even look like illness--it looks like some powerful form of magic."
Gregoria's eyes widened in realization, but knew there was no point in saying anything now. Instead, she reached out and gently caressed the mermaid's face.
"You are so beautiful, Aquiel," she confessed, sweat running down her face and neck. "I had hoped to return to your temple with you when my brother was crowned, but I see now that wasn't meant to be. I'm so sorry there wasn't more time for us."
Savia stood in the garden of the Ursa shrine, peacefully watching the leaves fall from a tree. The old woman smiled to herself. It all seemed a very fitting visual to her, seeing as the old was dying out to make way for the new.
She could hear the waters of the Ursula fountain rushing behind her. Normally, she tuned it out; for years she'd actually wanted to get rid of that old thing, but Everard wouldn't hear of it. Today, she found the noise louder than usual, and was unable to ignore it. Soon, rushing turned to very loud bubbling, so much that the old woman finally turned around to see what the hell was going on.
The waters rose and fell, revealing the First Ursa of the island temple. Her long, plain blue-gray robes were perfectly dry.
"How did you do it?" she calmly asked Savia. Her face and voice was emotionless as always, but there was a curious twinkle in her dark eyes.
"Dreamshade," Savia beamed proudly. "Diluted, of course. Couldn't have the two of them dropping in the same place at the same time."
The First Ursa was intrigued. "And how did you get it?"
"Bribed a mermaid a while back to harvest some for me from Neverland," Savia grinned. "All she wanted was one of those 'leg bracelets' you casually dole out. Now, I wasn't sure I could get the dreamshade solution just right, of course. But then again, herbs always were my strongest suit."
"You know, Savia," the high priestess began patiently, "I never liked you. You were always the most vainglorious and...avaricious of all my Ursas."
"Oh, I know," Savia chuckled. "That was always obvious. Just like the fact you weren't really a mortal was also obvious...at least to me."
"Even so," the goddess calmly nodded, slowly stepping down from the fountain, "I was content to let you rot here, wallowing in your delusions and self-indulgence, so long as you didn't cause any real harm."
"Harm?" Savia blinked. "I've kept your miserable religion alive among these sheep for decades. The new king will revere you, same as the old, and without any distractions from the rest of his family. Gregoria wasn't even a real person, if you think about it. She was just a cold-blooded spinster with a head was full of laws and ledgers, taxes and territories. And Lavinia?" She cackled. "Lavinia was as heathen as they come.
"And what delusions?" the old woman continued. "I took peasant girls from orphanages and brothels; I educated and raised them up. Some became mistresses, some became wives of nobles, but all them thank you for their good fortune, spreading your worship to every corner of Misthaven." She snorted. "That's my legacy...O Fallen One."
Ursula waved her right hand. It was ever so slight, so subtle, so quick, and yet when her hand fell back to her side, Savia's body was wracked with agony. It felt like the blood in her veins had suddenly turned to fire, and she immediately broke into to a heavy sweat. Her cane fell to the ground as she gripped her chest.
"Your legacy," the goddess assured her, "is to be the overly ambitious Ursa who died from her own poisons. Your tale will haunt palaces for centuries to come."
The old woman fell to the cobblestones, convulsing as she gasped for her last breath.
"You will serve as a warning," the goddess coolly continued, "to any mermaid or mortal who thinks failing the test of temptation is acceptable. Your death will assure my religion continues because moving forward, people will start to take it much more seriously."
Next: The Cold Wedding